The Colorado Massacre: Mental Health or Gun Debate?

I’m surprised there isn’t more discussion over David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times calling for more treatment programs for the mentally disturbed.  Or is that what he’s advocating? The headline seems to suggest it (“More Treatment Programs”). Ah, but columnists don’t write their own headlines, editors do.

Not that you couldn’t see this one coming. Mental health budgets have been taking a beating ever since this recession began. According to a study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, North Carolina’s state mental health budget decreased 1.2 percent to $608 million between fiscal 2009 and FY 2012. The pain continues as the state mental health budget took another beating with the FY13 adopted budget. Rose Hobin over at North Carolina Heath News has a nice interactive graphic to help you visualize the winners and losers (spoiler alert: mental health is the biggest loser).

So all anyone needed was clearly defined outcome to test the theory that cuts in mental treatment is the culprit. The killing of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., last week has touched off the gun debate, but I think Brooks is right in questioning whether we have the right smoking gun:

These days, people are trying to use the Aurora killings as a pretext to criticize America’s gun culture or to call for stricter gun control laws. (This doesn’t happen after European or Asian spree killings.) Personally, I’ve supported tighter gun control laws. But it’s not clear that those laws improve public safety. Researchers reviewing the gun control literature for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, were unable to show the laws are effective.

Interesting that Brooks never comes right out and says, “more dollars for mental health programs”, but that’s certainly how readers have interpreted it. A reader from Waynesville, NC comments,

A teacher might identify a troubled kid, and direct that kid to some kind of mental health treatment. But in much of red state America, there are fewer teachers, fewer social workers, and fewer mental health services. Access to the kind of treatment Mr. Brooks suggests is difficult, and the cost is prohibitive for most Americans.

They that sow the wind with cuts to education and social programs, and easier access to firearms and ammunition, are beginning to reap the whirlwind.

I think what Brooks is suggesting is something more basic. Rather than throwing money at a problem (because treatment for the mentally disturbed in the hands of the State has been soooo successful) Brooks’ prescription is as simple as “love thy neighbor”:

The best way to prevent killing sprees is with relationships — when one person notices that a relative or neighbor is going off the rails and gets that person treatment before the barbarism takes control. But there also has to be a more aggressive system of treatment options, especially for men in their 20s. The truly disturbed have always been with us, but their outbursts are now taking more malevolent forms.

Real basic medicine: If you see someone in metal anguish, help them.

Post Script: Over at Huffington Post, Duke Professor, Allen Frances weighs in on Colorado / The David Brooks piece: I can’t say I disagree (though some facts / data would have been appreciated)


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